Govt ‘open’ to self-regulatory redressal by social media companies

While the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) has proposed a government-appointed appeals’ committee to look into complaints against social media companies’ content moderation, it is “open” to an industry-wide “self-regulatory framework” if Big Tech platforms such as Facebook and Twitter were to handle users’ grievances and appeals in a “satisfactory way”, Rajeev Chandrashekhar, Minister of State for Electronics and IT, said on Tuesday.

In a fresh draft of amendments to the Information Technology (IT) Rules, 2021, on Monday, the MeitY proposed that “the central government shall constitute one or more grievance appellate committees, which shall consist of a chairperson and such other members as the central government may … appoint”, to be empowered to review, and possibly reverse, content moderation decisions taken by social media companies.


Draft up for discussion

The draft, which is up for public consultation for 30 days, triggered concerns about the government overriding the decisions of social media platforms.

The draft, which is up for public consultation for 30 days, triggered concerns about the government overriding the decisions of social media platforms.

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Terming the regulations as an “evolving” issue, Chandrashekhar said the government is looking for a way to make social media companies more accountable in handling grievances of users. “If the industry and these Big Tech platforms come up with their own self-regulatory mechanism to address grievances of users, we are open to it. If the platforms themselves form a framework of addressing grievances of users, and are accountable to them, we are open to that idea,” he said.

Asked if the Ministry would consider rolling back the proposal to set up a government-appointed appeals’ committee if the industry comes up with its own self-regulatory structure, Chandrashekhar said, “The government is open to the idea, that’s why we have opened the draft for public consultation”.

Deplatforming, or removing a person from a social media platform, was a recurring complaint from users, he said. “What we are seeing repeatedly in many cases is that social media companies are deplatforming users without giving them an opportunity to explain their actions, which is a violation of Article 14 of the Indian Constitution. Deplatforming a user following a court order or a proven illegality is a different thing. But deplatforming users just based on these companies’ own guidelines is very arbitrary,” said the minister. Article 14 of the Constitution provides for equality before the law or equal protection of the laws within the territory of India.

“If the platforms demonstrated systems and responsibilities to the users, we would not have to introduce last year’s amendments to the intermediary rules. But they did not. So, at some point, social media platforms will have to figure out a way of doing this, because it is not sustainable for the government to keep playing this watchman type of role. We are hoping that at some point the platforms recognise that they have to create accountability into their business model,” he said.

At the moment, the only recourse users have is to approach the courts. But “in a way, corporations have an advantage over citizens in court cases because very few people actually can seek legal recourse,” added Chandrashekhar.

Under the IT Rules, released in February last year, social media companies are mandated to appoint India-based grievance officers as part of their due diligence as “intermediaries” who enjoy legal immunity from third-party content on their platform. These officers are responsible for overseeing the grievance redressal mechanism. So, if a user has an issue with an account or content on a social media platform, he/she can complain to the company’s grievance officer who will have to act and dispose of that complaint within 15 days.

The rules, implemented in May last year, have run into several legal problems. Last year, WhatsApp filed a lawsuit against a provision which requires encrypted messaging platforms to trace the identity of the originator of a message. The company said that implementing the provision would dilute its encryption security and present a privacy-risk to users’ personal conversations.

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